Nutrition for Your Noggin
By Beth Bence Reinke, MS, RD
CBN.com Can we protect our aging brains by eating the right foods? Experts are optimistic.
Leading brain researchers think people lose mental agility because our brain cells communicate less effectively as we age. Inflammation and oxidative stress also contribute to decline in brain function. Studies show that food affects the brain and modifies the mental effects of aging.
Consider these ten "top of the class" brain foods:
Eggs are one of the best sources of choline, an essential nutrient for the health of cell membranes throughout the body, including brain cell membranes. In the brain, choline is used to make acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is critical for memory and thought processes. Adequate acetylcholine levels are thought to be protective against some kinds of dementia including Alzheimer's disease.
The average person needs 425-550 milligrams of choline daily and two egg yolks provide about half that amount (250 mg.) The only food that provides more choline than eggs is beef liver. Other food sources include beef steak, cauliflower and wheat germ.
These little beauties showed amazing promise in rat studies, earning them the nickname "brain berries." The research showed that eating blueberries daily slowed or reversed impairments in motor coordination and memory that come with aging. Blueberries are packed with antioxidants that fight free radical damage which is linked to Alzheimer' disease. In addition, blueberry consumption may help lessen brain damage from strokes. Experts recommend eating 1/2 to 1 cup of fresh or frozen blueberries per day.
Fatty fish like salmon are a great source of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA, both of which are essential for brain development and function. DHA helps protect against dementia, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease as well as depression. Fish oil fights heart disease and reduces stroke risk through improving blood circulation and vascular function. Other benefits may include improving Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and dyslexia.
Walnuts and other nuts
Boasting the highest amount of omega-3 fats of all the nuts, walnuts contain alpha-linolenic acid or ALA, a different omega-3 than is found in fish. Walnuts are rich in the trace mineral manganese, which is essential for peak brain function. (And have you noticed that walnuts look like miniature brains? Perhaps it's not a coincidence!) Nuts also contain vitamin E, a potent antioxidant. Even though they contain healthy fats, nuts pack a hefty calorie punch so limit yourself to one serving per day.
Antioxidants in vegetables help prevent the buildup of plaque in the arteries which translates to better blood flow to the brain and lower stroke risk. Just a few servings of veggies might make a big difference. One study showed that older people who eat at least two cups of vegetables a day slowed their mental decline by 40% more than folks who eat less than one serving a day. Enjoy a variety of colorful veggies - raw or cooked. Because manufacturers freeze them at their peak, frozen vegetables are usually as nutritious as fresh.
Herbs and spices
Your spice rack contains brain foods for flavoring everything from apple pie to spaghetti sauce. Cinnamon contains anthocyanins which improve capillary function. Studies show that the taste or smell of cinnamon may even boost memory and brainpower. The herbs oregano and rosemary may improve memory. Compounds in rosemary prevent the breakdown of a neurotransmitter that's critical for remembering. Turmeric and curry, often used in Indian dishes, may help prevent dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Stay tuned because future research may show that other herbs and spices enhance or protect brain function.
B12 and other B vitamins
Studies suggest that getting enough of the B's may protect against age-related mental decline. Vitamin B12 in particular protects nerve cells and guards against brain volume loss. One study showed that older people with low vitamin B12 levels were six times more likely to experience brain shrinkage, which may lead to impaired cognitive function. B12 and other B vitamins may help improve memory and verbal ability. Vitamins B12 is found in foods of animal origin such as meat, poultry, dairy, eggs and fish.
Both green tea and black tea are chock full of antioxidants. Many brands list the actual milligrams of antioxidants per serving right on the box. Research shows that tea may fight inflammation and lower the risk of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.
Green tea contains theanine which triggers the release of brain neurotransmitters that improve mood and have a calming effect on the brain. This may partly explain the feeling of relaxation and well-being associated with a steaming cup of green tea, even if it's caffeinated.
Black tea contains compounds that may improve blood flow, improve the function of blood vessels, and lower cholesterol, all of which adds up to lower heart attack and stroke risk. In one study, blood vessel function improved within two hours of drinking just one cup of black tea.
Regular coffee consumption may reduce the risk of mental decline, dementia and Alzheimer's disease. And as anyone who drinks it knows, the caffeine in coffee increases alertness and improves short term mental performance. Like tea, coffee is brimming with antioxidants. Because of the sheer volume that we consume, coffee was named the number one source of antioxidants in the American diet. To read an article on CBN.com about the health benefits of coffee and tea, click here.
Flavanol antioxidants in cocoa powder can cut stroke risk by preventing clots and lowering blood pressure and ensuring healthy blood flow.
To ensure that the health properties are retained, cocoa powder should be minimally processed. Look for non-alkalized cocoa powder, 100% organic if you can find it. Avoid Dutch cocoa which is heavily processed. To get your chocolate fix, stir a few teaspoons of cocoa and a little sugar into warm milk for a delicious nightcap or enjoy an ounce of dark chocolate several times a week. For the most antioxidant-rich chocolate bars, the label should say "60% cacao" or higher.
The bottom line
Did you notice these foods are minimally processed or not processed at all? Boxed mac and cheese didn't make the list. Neither did hot dogs, chips, soda or anything with trans fat or artificial sweeteners. Natural, God-made foods are the best fuel for a sharp mind.
Although only the brain benefits are listed here, these ten foods promote wellness from head to toe. To eat smart – power up with brain foods.
Beth Bence Reinke is a registered dietitian who writes about food, nutrition, and health topics. She is a mom of two sons and the author of numerous magazine articles for adults and children. Beth and her husband have been CBN partners since 1998. Visit her at www.bethbencereinke.com .
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